Serious negotiations aimed at finally bringing peace to Burma have begun in secret meetings held between the Burmese government and ethnic rebel groups along the Thai-Burma border, officials said.
Railways minister Aung Min—special envoy for the Burmese president Thein Sein—met over the weekend with top representatives from the four major ethnic groups still fighting for independence or autonomy.
“Although these meetings were only preliminary, they are a serious and sincere effort and genuine initiative for a sustainable and long-lasting peace in the ethnic areas,” Aung Min told RFA in a telephone interview.
In what all sides described as fruitful discussions in which a vision for the future was clearly laid out, the minister met with representatives from the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan Southern Army (SSA, or SURA as the Burmese government calls them), the Karenni National People’s Party (KNPP), and the Chin Nationalist Force (CNF).
“The government of Thein Sein sincerely wants to find a fair and durable peace which would cover all the ethnic groups’ concerns,” the minister said. “It is the president’s intention to invite them to the capital Naypyidaw in the near future to finalize formal cease-fire agreements.”
As a result of these talks, an informal truce is now in place to help the peace process move forward.
The next step will be for ethnic representatives to meet Burmese government officials at the provincial level, including the chief ministers of the respective states and regional military commanders, said a source at the meeting who insisted on remaining anonymous.
At least two groups—the SSA and CNF—have already set dates within the next six weeks for their regional meetings to take place. The KNU agreed in principle to further meetings, but must discuss details with their central committee before scheduling the dates.
Several key conditions were agreed for the interim period.
Members of the various groups will be allowed to travel freely in each other’s areas of control, provided they go unarmed.
And the ethnic rebel groups will be allowed to canvass the opinions of their people in local discussions in the run-up to the planned meetings in the regional capitals—though the government has agreed that these meetings may also be held in a neutral venue, with a final major meeting held in Naypyidaw.
In the meantime, both the government and the ethnic groups will work on development issues and create special economic zones. The Burmese government sees this as crucial for the process to lead to lasting peace and prosperity.
The SSA also insists that the ethnic groups and government cooperate to eradicate all drug production in the Shan state.
Previous cease-fire agreements failed because of a lack of peace planning, according to a government representative at the talks. Essentially, they brought an uneasy peace but no significant economic development.
“Any cease-fire agreement must be in the interests of the ordinary people,” Aung Min said.
Participants also agreed that future talks should include the issues of political rights and federalism. The Burmese government is keen for the ethnic groups to compete in future elections—even the upcoming by-elections—once the regional and national talks have been held and a cease-fire agreement has been signed.
The minister told the ethnic representatives that it will always be possible to make changes to the constitution, especially if more ethnic representatives are elected to parliament in 2015.
All parties agreed to a cease-fire, but said they would officially sign the agreement only after further discussions at a later date. After the cease-fire agreement is signed, the second step of the peace process would be to discuss development in the ethnic areas, with a final meeting held in Naypyidaw approving the results of the peace process.
“After the armed ethnic groups reach a cease-fire with the government, it will call a conference in the capital Naypyidaw similar to the Panlong conference,” reports quoted Aung Min as saying. “This conference would be held in front of MPs at the parliament.”
Every party concerned would be invited to take part in the discussions to find a lasting political solution, he said.
Burmese academics, businessmen, and politicians—including some from the educational nongovernmental organization Egress—were involved in setting up the weekend meetings.
Key Shan role
The former Shan leader Harn Yawnghwe, who recently made a return visit to Burma for the first time in nearly 50 years, played a key role in organizing the talks.
This was in fact the second round of talks. The first round took place earlier this month, with SSA leaders afterward visiting Rangoon to help prepare for the next step in the process.
There have been many meetings like this in the past, including the talks held between now-deceased KNU leader Byo Mya and former military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, but these all failed because of a lack of trust on both sides.
This time, everyone seems to be committed to making sure the process does not fail again.
These current talks are running in parallel with similar talks held with the ethnic groups that have already signed cease-fire agreements, especially the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which also met with the minister on the weekend.
Burmese government officials involved in the process are convinced that an end to the country’s devastating civil war is now in sight.
Reported by Larry Jagan in Bangkok for RFA's Burmese service.